Psychology

This last day of the year seems a good time to wrap up the current set of posts dealing with mindfulness. By looking at both its meaning and its practice there is now a working definition for what the term means for this blog project. All that remains at this stage is to place it in context, which for our society means examining mindfulness’ association with psychology.

There are therapeutic uses of mindfulness proving to be effective treatment for a number of painful psychic disorders for which we should all be grateful. The cognitive psychologists in particular are able to combine their work with traditional techniques of mindfulness for the express purpose of relieving the suffering of others. All of this is powerful stuff. My crystal ball tells me as tough times continue to squeeze, more and more people will find their way to practicing these very practical techniques for monitoring and rationally confronting paranoia, obsessions and a whole host of neuroses.

Also, it can be said that from the point of view that considers all consciousness the proper subject of psychology the states and insights that accompany samadhi, nirvana and enlightenment are all proper subjects for it to study.

That said, it is my opinion that what the mindfulness and contemplative practice as found in the wisdom traditions is all about is far beyond anything typically considered within the realm of western psychological science. It needs to be said that our society’s intellectual climate has no place beyond psychology in which to frame an understanding of something like the contemplative practices and their results. The natural way for a modern mind to approach such things is to consider that in some way they will lead to a healthier, saner, more well-balanced and well-adjusted individual. We expect the addition of wisdom to adorn our fairly modest ego desires and are ready to be satisfied with such milk toast.

The enlightenment I understand is much more dangerous than that. Those expectations are born from a culture that has been thoroughly psychologized. Our vision of ultimate human potential is shaped by a conformity to capitalistic norms, molded by the goal of psychology, namely, to aid the client in adjusting to the roles and responsibilities of the dominate consumer culture. There is a vast poverty of imagination revealed in this psychic characteristic of our time.

I do not want to be misunderstood as advocating that these adaptations are anything but good things, worth working for, even required to empower us to carry out our duties to ourselves and others. There is an ancient teaching among the Hindus that explains that for most people there are natural and proper stages in a life. The young are to gain their education, the middle years see us marry, raise families and work while the last stage in life is for turning inward and taking up the ways of yoga. There is a wholesome welcoming of each aspect of a full human life in this approach to things. Proper respect is paid for the skillful means displayed by adapting to your cultural norms. This is not the same as selling out. In every stage the contemplative does well to practice mindfully. Nor are the stages as black and white as the teaching might make them seem; there are phases within every stage of life where one element or another play a stronger role.

To return to our subject psychology, consider interpretations of a mandala. In depth psychology this is considered the central motif of the greater Self, that which is beyond ego at the core of the psyche, that which we experience as god. In therapy guided by depth psychology the client might make mandalas in sand or by painting, they watch for the appearance of mandalas in dreams and generally try to allow them to exist in their own space and take their own good time in revealing their healing message. All of this is great advice and the best we are able to do given the psychological context from which we think.

The traditional interpretation of a mandala differs in a number of respects. First in how they are used. They are detailed targets for intricate visualization practices giving a workout to the powers of the imagination’s inner eye. Instead of symbols of the individuation of the psyche they are gateways to the sacred world that is said to be around us right now though we are blind to it. Mandalas are the palace home for deities, yet in the center-most point is enthroned emptiness – there is a fundamental type of atheism in the traditions that use them. The last point of difference I would like to illustrate is a bit more of a stretch. The mandala in depth psychology is a manifestation of a psychic reality and while synchronicity might entangle the material world, its manifestation remains focused on an individual’s psychological states. The mandala in traditional thought is a manifestation of a transcendent reality that is neither all psychic nor all material.

In the center of the mandala is the central mountain of earth. It corresponds to the nervous system housed in the spine inside the body and to a specific mountain in the Himalayas. Or the center of the mandala is said to be a sacred tree; the Bodhi tree under which the Buddha became enlightened, which is a tree in India you can visit today. That same tree is also the nervous system branching through the spine within the inner body. These are the kinds of traditional teachings that accompany mandala images. They are clear statements of non-dual awareness and this places it beyond the reaches of most of what the west understands as psychology. These mandalas come from a world that is filled with magic.

In this worldview there are special trees, special mountains. The earth is alive with expressions of intelligence in form and flow, ceaselessly churning the dances of the ten-million things. In this worldview it is a precious, temporary condition to be experiencing a human life surrounded on all sides by clouds that dance, flowers that breathe, and waters that laugh.

Our psychologies are our containers; they are not the be-all and end-all of the contemplative path. They should not provide us with our final, ultimate sense of identity. We work with our neuroses as best we are able but shouldn’t confuse that with the great work: to seek enlightenment for the benefit of all sentient beings. This is not navel gazing. This is real work. It works with consciousness and the world. It is needed now, right in the middle of this maelstrom of the sixth extinction event.

All of this is to warn us against a too romantic version of Buddhism, a subject that is even addressed in the Wikipedia article on Buddhism and Psychology where this fine diagram can be found.

EarlyBuddhismThis coming year may we all work to walk more lightly on the earth, save a tree or a stream or a species. Our anxieties and complexes will just have to deal with it. We have work to do.

Nirvana

Buddha_Bodhi_Tree_Sanskrit_ManuscriptI have a tree all lit up in my living room. When my wife and I brought it inside we invited all the great outdoors indoors. As a Buddhist I do not see a contradiction between my practice and my culture in having a tree in my house around the winter solstice. I see an opportunity to build a ritual connection with this great, rich tapestry of my ancestor’s stories. Living the symbolism of ritual is another avenue of contemplative practice.

Living the symbolism, what does that mean? I’ve raised three children, the decorations on my family tree are shining with memories, heart meanings reflected. There is no way to know just what a tree decorated this way can mean without doing it; putting up the tree year after year and trying to make magic in the lives of your children for a special morning. Naturally some things hang around, others disappear over the years until a distillation of the love and concern of your family with all its quarks and quirks comes forth.

Trees play important roles in just about every mythic narrative we know about. In Christianity there’s the crucifixion on a tree. In Norse mythology Yggdrasil is the world tree. The Buddha gained enlightenment sitting under a Bodhi tree. The Druid traditions have whole languages of trees. Judaism includes the story of Eden’s trees and their mystics study the Kabbalistic tree of life. There is also the Maypole, lodge pole, yule log and all the other variations on trees that populate our customs and stories.

There is a widespread symbolic illiteracy among modern peoples. Unless your studies have included mythology, depth psychology or a mystical tradition chances are you have not been exposed to reading symbolisms. As this is the holiday season perhaps it is worthwhile to take a moment to examine the workings of the Judeo-Christian myths that formed the foundation of the culture that became the industrialized modern world. It does us good to honor the stories and recognize they provided our grandmothers and grandfathers lives with meaning, guided their hard work of trying to live good lives and accompanied their sufferings as a comfort and source of solace.

The basic tree narrative in the Bible is rarely spelled out but remains workable. The Eden state is characterized by having the tree of life at its center ever overflowing with the fruit of eternal life. This is a mandala image. The esoteric studies of the Kabbala with its classification of symbolisms, paths and spheres is said to be explorations of this tree. The other tree of the Bible story has played a much more central role in the formation of values and tales in the western world; the tree of good and evil or as it is sometimes called the tree of knowledge. The story is that all mankind fell into sin by eating the fruit of this tree. With knowledge came sin and with sin death entered the world. It took another tree, the tree of torture where god killed himself for the sake of loving mankind, to redeem the fallen state.

It is not hard to read these symbols as dealing with the limits of the conceptual mind, specifically its conscience built as it is on the knowledge of good and evil. With this self awareness we are cast out of Eden, unable to partake of the fruit of the tree of life any longer. Our destiny is to be alienated from creation because we know we will die one day and this makes life a burden of toil and tears. Only granting eternal life can solve the flaw which is a way of asserting that only removing suffering, not transcending it, can address the fundamental unease we experience.

How exactly a Christmas tree, a tradition born for the cultures with these Bible stories, relates to all this is hard to fathom for most people, even those who participate in the Christian holiday rituals year after year. The esoteric tale is simple though. The torture was not the final word after all, it was a kind of delusion as the Christ rose from the dead and it is said by the Christian mystics the tree of the cross became the tree of life, even the bridal chamber. The Christmas tree all lit up and adorned with good foods and shiny things represents the tree of death, the tree of knowledge, transformed through the tree of torture into the tree of life. Get the message and Eden is as close as your living room.

That is not however why I too have a lit tree in the living room this week. I am grateful for an opportunity to share the tradition of a tree brought inside and decorated with rainbow lights. For me other clusters of symbolisms and other stories gather around it that resonate more truly with my understanding of my human experience and my best comprehension of what it is to live the good life in the Socratic sense.

I think everyone should take advantage of this once a year chance to celebrate ritually, our poor culture is so ritually malnourished. Exchange gifts with strangers, friends and loved ones and with every exchange aspire for a world not dominated by graft and greed, where the marketplace is just one part of living and not the dominate slavery it has become. When you decorate a tree do so with whatever artifacts resonate with you and yours. Culminate the decorating with a tree top, what will it be for you? If you are a Christian an angel seems perfect, if Jewish perhaps a star, if a Buddhist perhaps a mandala, if Muslim maybe a model of a minaret? I wonder what our friend the Archdruid does? The point is, this is a way of participating in a cultural psychic waveform, shall we say, to honor our roots in the collective psyche. All traditions have a tree symbol or story; I suggest not allowing fear or pride to keep anyone from participating.

I have an ulterior motive as well. I cannot help but think that if more people brought a living tree into their houses, their own sensitivity to ecology might be heightened. I believe being near a living tree is a balm to many of the stresses and strains we suffer from living in our overly man-made environments with all those sharp corners and straight lines. Finally, I think that with just a dollop of awareness it is very possible to have a quite moment of reverence some evening before the soft glow of a lit tree in a quite house. It is just possible that for a flash you will see through the mind-word label ‘tree’ and see the actual, wholly unique individual tree sharing with you a temporary moment of existing. Perhaps you will be invited to rest with one pointed mind, samadhi, the gateway to nirvana. In the final analysis all the symbolisms and rituals are just props to aid us in gaining a pure perception of the reality of this tree; a participant in flows of sunlight and rain, nourishing soil and creating the very air we breathe. It is the reality that is most magical but, sadly we do not see it, it is as if we are under a spell that casts a shroud over our eyes.

Decades ago I was taught what remains for me the most powerful symbolic reading of mythological or scriptural trees. There is a symbolic analogy between the tree and the human nervous system with its spinal trunk and dendrite branches. Along this tree there are chakras, wheels where a nexus of energy and material flows unfold over time. These chakras are rainbow colored providing a harmony with the tree in my living room all aglow with lights. Through skillful means a relationship with this tree brings forth one of the fruits of contemplative practice, often called nirvana.

My favorite set of symbols around nirvana cluster around the rainbow. Multiple double blind experiments have demonstrated that there are deep psychological reactions to the colors we experience. The rainbow captures the largest mysteries of physics I have learned from my cultural inheritance; the speed limit of the universe and the particle and wave duality at the core of quantum experiments. It also captures the most mysterious aspects of our psychologies; the breakdown of clear light into rainbow as if it was hiding there all the time just needing a different way of looking at it and how exactly the mind – all that wet-ware of synapses and neurotransmitters – sees light in dreams and inner visualizations. Where is this light exactly in the darkness inside our skulls? Spend time with this question and one might come to hear the music of the spheres.

An interesting feature of the chakra and Kabalistic symbol systems is that there is room for more than one level of “truth.” Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs these maps of potential conscious experience recognize higher states build on lower ones. They try to capture the funny way events seen one way can mean something totally different when seen another way. In Buddhism there are said to be two truths, not one; the relative truth and the absolute truth. The relative truth is all that we experience of reality in what we might call the scientific world view. The absolute truth is all that we experience beyond the duality of conceptual mind, though careful reasoning can lead us to its threshold. Both are true, the relative and the absolute, simultaneously. The tree symbol teaches us this as it maintains its roots in the good earth even as its branches reach the spaciousness of the sky.

Nirvana is a state of consciousness that is experienced as beyond time or as one with all time. The yogi dares to recognize this state of consciousness as valid, naturally arising in the body-mind of human beings. Though it does not seem like it to our daily, get up and get your coffee consciousness, things like the symbolism of the tree are of more primary importance to the experience of being human than we typically can recognize. In the moments of orgasm, death, slipping into the sacred world, touching the Buddha mind, in those moments a profound transformation of values occurs as the contents of conscious experience shift to another, altogether more profound plane. Because this is inherent in consciousness itself every sentient being is destined to share these experiences. Every man, woman and child but also every whale, stink bug and brown bear will also pass through these inner worlds of experience. At least it is no less rational to asset this is the case than the position that consciousness is nothing more than an accidental spandrel. How and why this works out future posts will explore but first our understanding of what reasoning itself is will need to be sharpened.

The yogi dares to recognize this state of consciousness as valid, hence the need for all those metaphoric ideas so easily misunderstood as dogmas. Ideas like reincarnation reflect the aspect of timelessness that is part of this awareness. Ideas like complete and total rest from the desires of the body and mind reflect the aspect of total satisfaction of the heart’s deepest longings that is part of the experience. Ideas like non-duality reflect the aspect of deepest homecoming that is part of this awareness.

Unlike dogma which must just be accepted often despite our honest reasoning and critical intelligence, the contemplative traditions assert only the nature of reality. Granted they are willing to include universal human experiences that are normally not given much thought, not often discussed, and poorly understood yet the whole case for enlightenment being a real thing, a real possibility for human beings rests on the simple, almost scientific assertion of what is really real.

Denying this aspect of the human experience, we discard a large proportion of what provides mankind with its most profound dignity; the dignity that arises from the core of self awareness, from consciousness itself. Part of the middle way is a balance between the inner world and the outer world we encounter in our daily experiences. Evolution primes us for paying attention to the outer world, our curiosity primes us to ask about our inner one. The practice of a contemplative is nothing more or less than the commitment to try and live in such a way that neither the one nor the other are allowed to dominate. Ritual offers a means of using externally perceived objects like a glowing tree as statements of internally perceived objects like the light of the mind.

On this holiday I would like to thank my readers from all over the world. These posts require a degree of commitment to share with me week after week. These words are my gift to you, your time and attention your gift to me. Thank you.

Happy Holiday friends.

Samsara

PewTorturePollI think every citizen of the world’s various governments should read the report released last week to the U.S. senate summarizing the use of torture by the CIA in the years 2001 to 2009.

In this Christmas season many millions of Christians worldwide honor their image of deity in the form of a child. Yet Christianity’s iconic image, which shocked the ancient world, is not the stable first constructed by St. Francis of Assisi but the crucifix, that of a man being tortured to death. What Buddha taught was kind of subtle; how the mind makes the world we experience. What Jesus taught was not subtle at all, at all: torture man and you kill god. The corpus on the cross is stating this in as clear of terms as it is possible to get: that which would torture is damned, cut off from the divine. There have been centuries of thought devoted to the theological meaning of the crucifixion but might the most basic message be the most important ?

I have avoided the subject of politics on this blog up to this point and do not anticipate turning to it often from here on out either. Still there are times events touch on aspects of this blog’s project so directly it is worth taking the risk of alienating some readers to explore them. As a lifelong member of Amnesty International I think it is important to use the fact that there is torture going on in the world – right now – as a subject for our contemplations. It is important to recognize just what it is that we are seeking to liberate ourselves and all other sentient beings from. Samsaric ignorance is what we are trying to overcome by our practice of meditation; we are looking for the middle way between extreme views of all kinds. The enlightened mind can only be born in a heart of Bodhichitta, a heart of loving kindness. This shows how twisted the paths have become for those whose karma has lead them to these hallways of horror, how very far lost it is possible to become.

Torture – what the human mind created, it can undo.

To avoid being misunderstood I want to say at the outset that I think it is important everyone on earth becomes aware of this report not to join the bandwagon of the many, many voices heaping scorn and derision on the United States. Just the opposite actually. The form of government in the United States and the track record of its relationship with other countries and peoples is one of the most precious chapters in the history of civilizations. Even if it is only in its rhetoric, it has tried to affirm the rights of the individual above state and religion. This is in stark contrast to those religions that dictate what can be thought to their members and those despots that lord it over their critics with death squads and torture.

I do not think I have a Pollyanna view of the United States and its role in history. Yet it seems to me only ignorance would refuse to agree there is an important difference between its actions in the world and say, the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge or the Stalinist purge or the Nazi death camps. Critics of the empire the United States can all too easily lose sight of these vital differences in the rhetoric that would paint the US as the great Satan.

I am of the opinion that the US has acted in horrific ways many times and deserves much of the criticism it currently receives. If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about my country it would be that we would listen carefully to our critics and take their concerns to heart as ways to help us become a better society. Having spent my whole life in the states my experience has been that the people who do “most of the working and paying and living and dying” would give you the shirt off their backs if it was needed. It is for these citizens I recommend a long, sober contemplation of this senate report. All the blowback from our country’s selfishly evil deeds, manipulations of lives and minds, death dealings and lies are coming home to roost. Perhaps it is naïve but I place my hope in the hands of these people because among them I think it is just possible for a mature understanding to develop about our country’s place in the world. Our most probable future is going to be characterized by payback on so many levels; ecological yes but political, economic, social and religious as well. We already see our cities aflame and our coasts flooded. My hope is that the quite majority are willing to accept the discipline of enduring the results of our mistakes with an eye to learning from them. As this century unfolds and the American empire unravels, as I believe it most probably will, there will be an opportunity to return to the political and cultural roots that once made this country a shining light on the hill, a source of hope for millions of the poor and downtrodden the world over.

It is just these considerations that provide the proper context for appreciating just how lost the world-wide modern industrialized societies have become. So how then should people seeking to stay awake respond to such an item as this senate report? First we should recognize that the details in the report are about real human beings who inflicted and suffered these events. Second we should recognize that this is a cyclic event. Every so often the CIA is dragged through the mud in public. The last time was during the 1970s investigations led by Senator Church. We collectively cast our shadow on this whipping boy and feel better when the whole thing quickly disappears down the empire’s memory hole. Nothing is fundamentally changed by the process but our image of ourselves gets a face lift.

What do these despicable actions teach us about the human condition? Acts of barbarism are caused by rigidity of consciences, a result of extreme views. This fixation, lost in concepts without feeling, is ego mind. Mara, the devil. Spinner of illusions and lies. Doesn’t that characterize well what these station chiefs, trainers and army recruits were chasing down these corridors of hell? Here’s why it is so hard for those who have participated in these kinds of things. Sacred world requires seeing the entire world with a type of purity that is born of absolute acceptance. It is hard to accept one’s self in unconditional terms when acts of blasphemy against awareness haunt the conscience. There is no final escape from conscience, the hounds of heaven and all that. They are so sure they are so right… until they are not.

It is taught that it is possible to purify all evil deeds, obscurations and degrading actions but it is remorse and regret that unlocks these powers. Neither individuals nor countries can hide behind weasel words like extrajudicial punishment and enhanced interrogation techniques. That we show no regret and remorse is just a sign of how full blown our psychopathology has become. The psychopath / sociopath are defined by having no regret when regret is the proper response. When it is missing it is due to ignorance, an inability to see there is something to be remorseful about, just as we see in this national spin about the torture we committed a few years ago.

The world created by these mental delusions is known as samsara. Classically it has been likened to a world on fire, a pit of snakes and an island of cannibals. It is not hard to see how these describe the world such unfortunates inhabit: world on fire, a war zone; pit of snakes, everyone’s full of poisons; island of cannibals, what we call dog-eat-dog. It is not surprising that those who live in this mind created world, creating nightmares for themselves and other people also easily create nightmares for the environment. People so caught up in exclusively anthropomorphic concerns can hardly spare a thought for spilling poisons in a river or anything else along those lines.

There are a number of important lessons to draw from this pathetic turn of affairs in foreign affairs, not least is the new note being played; the total lack of remorse. These evil acts are condemned not because they contradict the history of American ideals and centuries of international law but because the techniques did not prove to be effective. This, I suggest, is a frighteningly clear indication of just how far the so-called leader of the free world has lost its bearings. It is hard to think straight about politics in our time. The public square has become dominated by Ph.D.-level psychological spin-doctoring, the internet has created an echo chamber where any nutty idea can find encouragement and the mass media has become almost wholly irrelevant by refusing to take up any of the truly important issues facing our society. It has been said that the American people get the government they deserve and it is true we citizens have become all-together too complacent with our corporate sponsored infantalization. Still this lack of remorse should be capable of penetrating even our hardened, manipulated hearts.

To think straight about modern political philosophy it is important that we recognize the role played by the desire for creating utopia through the enlightenment project that is coming unraveled all around us in our time. The ancient wisdom teaches that this was always destined to be a quixotic attempt since samsara has always been broken and cannot be fixed. To think straight also requires that once we see this clearly we do not swing to the opposite extreme and disregard any and all attempts to seek a better way of being in this world. There are differences between living under the barbarism of the killing fields and not, and these differences matter a great deal.

In some perversion of human experience we have come to expect a life without hardship, to be continually entertained and to never be put upon to do what we do not feel like doing. The fake world of the advertisers is made of images and emotions and it is as if we have shoved our heads into that fantasy land and insisted to all the world that we are living in utopia. Just like the marketing messages are designed to have us react. Meanwhile as our heads are surrounded by sex, violence, anger, yelling, power plays and all the rest of it, the real world our bodies occupy is becoming daily less and less capable of supporting living things and the clash between nations is growing more and more harsh.

All of this serves as a reminder for why we practice. Seeing deeply into samsara provides the fuel. The aspiration remains to relieve those who suffer as expressed in the traditional Buddhist prayer. During practice we recognize our minds classify all sentient beings into three groups. There are those we love and who love us that we hold close to ourselves. There are those we hate and who have harmed us and others that we push as far away from ourselves as we can. Finally there are all those who we neither love nor hate but are simply indifferent to their fate one way or the other. The traditional aspiration works with all three groups. In the traditions that include visualizations we are taught to see the group of enemies as in front of us, that they hold one of the keys to our heart of loving kindness.

Compassion is the way to peace. Recognizing the ignorance involved, the snares of samsara, it is possible to embrace even these darknesses without condemning the species capable of them.

Meditation

“All experience is preceded by mind,
Lead by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a corrupted mind,
And suffering follows
As the wagon wheel follows the hoof of the ox.

All experience is preceded by mind,
Lead by mind,
Made by mind.
Speak or act with a peaceful mind,
And happiness follows
Like a never-departing shadow.”

Buddha
Opening sutras of the Dhammapada

 

Wisdom traditions all teach that there is real work involved in pursuing their teachings. The idea that there is a savior going to fix everything for you is foreign to this way of thinking. No one can do for you the working with your mind you need to do for yourself. The different traditions have differing disciplines but all of them include an element of getting to know your mind. Mediation is just that, a date with your mind; a time set aside to observe with care just what it is that is unfolding in your awareness at that very moment. My teacher has said meditation is like meeting your mind at Starbucks, a getting to know you better appointment.

Meditation quite simply is a dedication to a very simple and fundamental realization: it is an endlessly fascinating thing to be a self-conscious awareness awake in a universe full of wonders. Meditation is a deliberate remembering that right where you are sitting now you are participating in a cosmic experience.

For thousands of years countless individuals have made a daily discipline of meditation. For the most part their experiences have been communicated to others as what to do as opposed to what to expect. Not a whole lot of time is spent explaining the types of results that a daily discipline encounters. Instead there are explanations of just how to go about doing the deeds. How to take the seven point posture and breathe in ways conductive to the quieting of the mind are often the only real instructions given. The traditions have learned to trust that those who do the work will also come to the fruition. There is a great respect for the individual nature of the inner experiences of consciousness that are nurtured in meditation and which go beyond what can be put into words. Indeed, too many words describing the results can be a hindrance if they tempt us to force our meditative experiences into what we think they should be. However, in the West there are too few traditions of contemplation to encourage people to take up the actual doing of a daily practice. For some few people the carrot of enlightenment is sufficient to create the stick of self-discipline. For others, perhaps some description of results will be the enticement they need. My hope in sharing these thoughts through this blog is to persuade those readers who do not have a daily practice, or are unable to maintain it regularly, to give it a shot. Why not? See you on the inside.

Choose a point of focus to anchor with; a small Buddha, flame, feather, stone or classically the breath. It could also be a particular thought or visualization. Train the mind to stay focused on the anchor with a rested concentration. Return the mind to it when you notice it has wandered. Hold the posture still, root the mind in sitting so it can spread its wings. Breathe from the belly; breathe naturally though tending towards the long and deep. The eyes are open in Buddhist meditation with slightly closed eyelids, resting the gaze on the object as if on a gently flowing stream. For inner thoughts and visualization the gaze rests dispersed in a gestalt, seeing everything, focusing on nothing. If you chant make the tone deep so that it vibrates the body.

Relax. That is the key.

This first technique to be mastered, just described, is known as shamatha, calm-abiding meditation. This settling of the mind, quieting it down, allows a one-pointed concentration to develop. It is as if the mind becomes a calm pool from which it is possible to gently bring up an object of contemplation and stay with it without distraction. Perfecting this one-pointed concentration it develops into what is known as samadhi, non-dual awareness. This shamatha is both the foundation on which all other techniques are built and the deep pool of peace from which one begins and to which one returns in every meditative session.

When a person first sits still for a half hour or more and simply observes the goings on within their mind typically the experience is one of anything but calm-abiding. Thoughts ping-pong off the skull, weave emotionally engaging stories of what should have been or should be in times to come, the chatty inner voice seems to be unceasing and many people conclude at this point that this mediation stuff is just making it worse. What is really happening is that the nature of mind is being encountered for the first time. This kinetic, frantic spinning is what you have been living with day in and day out for years without really noticing it for what it is.

So how did the idea that there is a calm-abiding state to be found within ever arise? There are a few ways to talk about it which in my experience can be very helpful for understanding the process and helping people stick with it. One way of touching the peace is to allow an awareness of the gap between thoughts or the gap between breaths to grow. That chatty inner voice that seems to be unceasing actually is modeled on the outer voice and stops to take a “breath” every once in a while. A related way of understanding what it is to practice calm-abiding recognizes that while on one level the chatty, discursive, conceptual mind works ceaselessly, never resting in sleep or wakefulness, on another level a continuous simplicity also exists which is untroubled, profoundly grounded and at peace. Do not expect thoughts to cease, it is the nature of thoughts to be continuously arising. Instead when meditating move the locus of awareness deeper into the body, beyond the whirling thought-mind. Dwell in the heart.

In Tibetan traditions shamatha is not considered the final point of meditative practice. After gaining some facility with calm-abiding the student proceeds to what is known as vipassana which is a type of contemplation of ideas that are conductive to the nurturance of wisdom. When we understand this give and take that weaves periods of concentration with periods of rest, meditation soon becomes pleasant, which encourages us to stay with our discipline day after day. Once the mind has been calmed a bit the object of the meditative session is brought to awareness. I have found many times my contemplations on these subjects are greatly enriched by starting with whatever understanding I have of biology, chemistry, ecology, evolution, cosmology and physics. At other times a snippet of song or poetry or a remembered dream provide good starting points. Classic subjects for this deep contemplation include the co-dependent arising of all things, the impermanence of all things, the analysis of the self into the five heaps or skandas and the mother of all contemplative subjects; emptiness. Another set of traditional subjects deal with the karma or individual experiences of your life. In these practices radical acceptance is extended to self and others; the pain and confusions of ignorance are absorbed deeply into the heart on the in-breath and an aspiration for all sentient being to be free of such suffering sent out on the out-breath.

So the session is not an experience of voidness but instead a type of tasting of an insight. Intuition and felt-images work together to sow seeds of wisdom. Slowly as the days go by and melt into years the inner landscape of the body-mind unfolds, growing ever more detailed and rich. Both highs and lows, moments of despair and moments of ecstasy are all mixed together with the mind-stream in a type of alchemical process. When done correctly there is an increased empathy for everyone who shares with you this tricky yet wonder-filled mind and there is a gratitude for experience that extends beyond judgments of good and bad.

I recommend adopting a daily practice. Take anywhere from a half hour to two hours every day to set aside the concerns of the world, concerns around survival and status, and recall the true roots of what it is to be human. Mindfulness is remembering.

This life that you are experiencing will not last forever, of that we can be sure. Drink deeply of it.

The practice of contemplation is an act of protest against the shallow characterizations of living that pervades our cultural mono-vision of consumers and consumption. Deep practice is an alternative lifestyle, a step outside of the mainstream. With the development of skill these practice sessions become a way of bathing again in the refreshing waters of earth’s purity. By nurturing compassion and aspiring to heal the rifts that have grown so threatening between us and the earth, we touch the natural world as a friend, confidant, and admiring lover. By bringing the value of living-being clearly to mind we strike a blow against the nihilistic meaninglessness that has grown like a cancer in western societies since at least the First World War.

Practices like the Zen tea ceremony are a good guide to what the contemplative traditions hold as the good life. They celebrate better without the more and faster that has become our cultural dead ends. Every meditation session is our small yet important contribution to the overall state of mindfulness enjoyed by the whole of the human race at that moment. Every session is a blow against the darkness of isolation and anomie and a ringing endorsement of our profound inner liberty and freedom.

The inspiration for practice comes from some glimpse we have had into the potential of the human mind’s states of consciousness. Perhaps it was a moment of love that knew no bounds and embraced all beings, all things, and all events. Perhaps it was a moment when the intricate pattern of cause and effect, that seems filled with the pain of mistakes, was seen to be perfect, just as it is, always has been and always will be. Perhaps it was a second of helping another living thing find peace or laughter or healing when the scales fell from our eyes and we saw the sacred within this very earthly life. There are many, many states of consciousness in the mansions of the mind. With practice all three realms are visited; the heavenly, the hellish, and the earthly yet to do the practice is itself an affirmation that our small, selfish, fearful states of mind do not define us. To do the practice is to affirm that these higher, selfless states of consciousness are precious even if they are discarded and belittled by the culture at large.

In the age of ecocide we can be overwhelmed, wailing ‘what can I do?’

“The Most Radical thing any of us can do at this time is to be fully present to what is happening in the world.” Joanna Macy

A word or two about doing the work. It is your mind, your body, your fate, your breath, your death, your love, your wisdom, and your folly that is the content. Ultimately it is also your skillful means and inner guru that will see you through as well. Fundamentally, any practice done with sincerity and integrity cannot be done wrong. If your will is to sit and meditate and you sit and meditate for some time regardless of the actual content of the session it will have a beneficial fruitfulness from whatever effort was extended. Contemplative practice is an experiment in the exploration of consciousness. Your life events as they are processed by your mind and body provide the lab materials. The contemplative training technologies are the instruments, tools for this most exacting observational science. No one knows what result you will get from the experiment, not even you – until you actually do the work. I was also taught to keep a journal, a lab notebook as it were. You might find it aids in keeping focus as the years go by.

One final note. I studied the collected works of Carl Jung intensively for four or five years when I was young, between the ages of 17 and 21 or so. This model of depth psychology has remained with me to some degree. The model has a place for mandala images of the non-ego Self, a dictionary of symbolism by which to understand the hypnogogic imagery that can arise in deep meditative states, and a rich understanding of the developmental tasks typical of the different stages of life. His work served as a bridge for me to learn to rationally respect the non-rational, for the waking self to respect the dreaming self. I do not consider myself a Jungian nor do I think his model is as complete or useful as other, non-psychological ones. Still, it is the best work I know in the modern Western cannon of intellectuals that provides a context for and understanding of what the real alchemy of consciousness is all about. Buyer beware, but it worked for me. I mention this intellectual debt so my readers aware of Jungian thought will have a more detailed context in which to asses my ideas and in the spirit of sharing what I have found supportive of living a contemplative life in these modern times. My attention now that I am in my 50s is on science and meditation, the ecological crises and sustainability but I recognize the expression of my thought bears an indelible stamp from my earliest teachers.

The Music of the Spheres

Ecological thinking embodies explorations of relationships between living things and those living things and their environments. The living things can be as large as a blue whale or as small as a bacterium. The environments can be as small as a drop of pond water or as extensive as the whole universe itself. With the proper use of the right tools these relationships can be explored in great detail. Part of a contemplative’s satisfaction and wellbeing comes from spending the time that is needed to really enjoy these details.

Spending time with mammals leaves little doubt that there is awareness behind their eyes. It is a commonplace that our cats and dogs have personalities we come to love. Many people take this obvious acknowledgment of awareness as just a first step and extend the same recognition that there is some sort of awareness to the birds, insects, invertebrates and all the rest of the species populating the biosphere with such endless forms most beautiful.

This living world is in contrast to the deadened one too many of us habitually inhabit. The modern industrialized environment is so dominated by human artifacts that it is all too easy to forget to take even a single moment for mindfulness; for remembering how special it really is to be alive for the few years we are each allotted. This is why it is so helpful to have tools to support our efforts at remaining awake. The tools remind us that we are not isolated freaks of nature persecuted with self-conscious awareness of our mortality but are actually bearers of human dignity within a large community of life.

The dead world is the other way of viewing existence: that the pessimistic, nihilistic, thoroughly reductive materialism where only the dog-eat-dog of selfish, cruel, competitive power seekers all tragically and robotically unfree is “really” real. Many think that this is the necessary view that science teaches us, many more fear that this might be the case and refuse to look long and deep into the ways of the deadened world. They fear a silent universe. In the classical contemplative teachings all these insights are welcomed as the courageously clear analysis of samsara, the way the grey world really is. There is suffering involved in birth, sickness, old age and death, a suffering that is both individual and planetary. For you as an individual, things can look rather bleak. Our running away from this truth only makes us more haunted and hunted, more susceptible to the snake oil salesmen offering relief through a new purchase. The ancient advice is to stop running away, to look directly on the ways of being. Then you might have the power, the inspiration, to find the cracks where the light and magic can get in. The rumor is that there is a world of rainbows hiding just below the surface of the grey.

To help in this work, and it is work, there are tools of escape. The grey world is no more “really” real in any absolute sense than any of the other many conceptual castles we are capable of constructing for ourselves. The tools are everywhere once we are clear that the task is lessening our self-absorption. The first one I recommend for your consideration is kept on the person: a simple hand lens that fits easily into a pocket or purse. This is a simple tool that unlocks a whole new world within the world. Examine the ice on the pond, the weave of your clothes’ fabric, the luminous sheen on a dragonfly wing, the multiple eyes of your friendly neighborhood spider and any of countless other items populating your immediate environment. An appreciation for the intricate intelligence within forms naturally arises as we become more acquainted with their details. Unfortunately the human nervous system can quickly become numb to any stimuli it encounters repeatedly but with a hand lens always close you train in looking again, in really seeing the individual form in front of you and not just the conceptual label that normally accompanies perception.

PocketMagnifierKorzybski taught us in the 1930s that the menu is not the meal. His master work, Science and Sanity, is well worth spending time with if you have a scientific bend to your intellectual curiosities. In this work he points out how quickly our nervous systems can label this living, green stuff under our feet grass and by this very move miss all conscious perception of the individual, unique blades. He goes on to point out that those individual, unique blades have a reality to their existence that the abstraction “grass” does not. The simple expediency of using a hand lens every day in all kinds of places to examine all kinds of things helps wake us up to our senses again and slip out of the too settled grey zone of abstract conceptual thought. This simple hand lens acts to focus our curiosity outward, out into the world beyond our immediate personal concerns.

So as you are out walking under the sky with your hand lens in pocket, what other practice might we participate in? One I find fruitful is taking on the chore of picking up the human garbage I see along some part of my walk. Find some part of the environment you frequent regularly in which it is possible to see the natural world, however slight such a glimpse might be. Take a moment to pick up any human made pollution scarring this experience of the natural world, or at least a bit of it. The hope is that others might enjoy a view of Gaia and find relief from their grinding, daily concerns in a moment of appreciation of the world’s beauty. I live in an urban area so choose a park walkway for this practice. I have found the world readily cooperates, providing new trash to work with most every day. Sure it is a small thing and certainly will not save the world but that is just the point; it is a practice that embraces the reality of what I can do which is not much, but it is something.

The next set of tools is for the home. I was taught that every well-appointed home should have a few basic mind tools; a microscope, a telescope and a set of encyclopedias. Perhaps the last is now passé with the arrival of the internet but the others are all the more needed in our time of experts. In the same way that the hand lens widens the world one lives in, the wonderful (and for the most part affordable) basic microscope and telescope delivers whole new worlds. The thing is, it is just not the same to see a photo of a cell or the rings of Saturn as it is to gaze on these things with your own eyes. Of the many foolishness’s of our times perhaps none is more destructive of a zest for living then the pervasive sovereignty of experts. Somehow most of us have been left with the impression that if we are not able to contribute some new insight into a science or invent a new math or algorithm, then there is nothing for us in exploring the marvels of the world on our own. Here is the secret – encountering reality is beneficial to our mindstream, our souls if you will. It is not an exclusive club for the wealthy and powerful, the smart and genius but a very democratic feature of the human experience. It is yours for the taking.

For example, I have had quite awe inspiring experiences playing with the spectrum of light revealed by a prism. Sure I had read in my physics books that sunlight consists of all the colors of the rainbow, even saw the photo.  But when I got my hands on a water prism and reproduced some of the experiments of Newton, Boyle and Goethe… something deep inside me changed. The world became a more magical place. All these tools can work the same way. All it takes is an alert awareness, a relaxed curiosity. The microscope, telescope, hand lens and prism can unite with rational studies to educate the imagination, the inner senses. How this in turn works out in practice will occupy us for the rest of this post.

Consider how contemplation of geese flying overhead can lead to a rich sense of being at home on the earth. In the presence of this event, these migrations, your consciousness is participating in an ecological and evolutionary adaptation that has been going on for centuries, millennia, and if you allow for all that has ever flocked across the face of Gaia, for hundreds of millions of years. It is just a single detail within the biosphere yet a necessary one. As they glide by in the sky and within your awareness, are you able to sense the timelessness of the event? How innumerable individual animals have come and gone yet the pattern remains? What is important is that the role be carried out, that this particular niche in the manifold exuberance of life’s anti-entropic explorations is wholly filled. If there were no geese another species would have evolved to take advantage of the same resources.

In the same way there seems to be a role for self-conscious beings given our particular human apperception of existence. Poetically, our thisness meets the other’s thusness as we ask, what makes the grass green? Who or what makes that which is real, seem real to me? Final, complete introspective investigation uncovers the most intimate ‘this’ is simply ‘thus’, beyond perceiver and perceived as two. All the contemplative tools are designed to provide an entryway into this insight, whether they are tools to hold in the hands or tools to hold in the mind.

Perhaps one way into a taste of this non-duality and the way our sense of reality mixes with it in high contemplations is through thinking about what is known in the west as the Music of the Spheres. This is said to be the harmonies the planets are making as they follow their celestial movements and is a fine example of a tool held in the mind. The music of the spheres is like a Zen koan. Sound is the label we give to the human sensory neuron-firings stimulated by vibrations in the earth’s atmosphere which cause the delicate bones of our inner ear to move. Where is any objective sense of sound in all of this? Really apprehended, one experiences an unmovable silence in the heart of all sounds, an emptiness of the element of the absolutely real in sound that seems to exist in sound until we take full awareness of its processing. In this state of mind, now consider the Music of the Spheres as a profound not-sound since there is no atmosphere in space to carry the vibrations we label sound. Yet one could say the planets sing as their orchestrated movements unfold across the spacetime of relativity and vibrate using the most fundamental macrocosmic force of all – gravity.

Just as there is a kind of silence in sound when apprehended with due weight given to the role of our nervous systems, there is a kind of sound in what we perceive as silence. Perhaps we are so constructed as to be deaf to the rest of the orchestra of existence outside of our atmosphere; we are after all wholly children of our Mother Earth. Perhaps all things in all scales, from the collision of galaxies through the spinning and orbiting of planets, on down to the molecular world’s non-stop shaking and the quarks ceaseless vibrations (to say nothing of strings) are all producing “sound.” The Music of the Spheres indeed!

What good is training with such thought experiments? It is not to assert dogmatically that there is such a sound and what we experience as sound is just a delusion. Nor is it meant to assert the opposite. In becoming open to the possibility that there is a Music of the Spheres that we can hear though the faculty of intuition and insight one also entertains an awareness of the larger, cosmological context in which an awareness of “sound” is taking place. The context of galaxies through to quarks is that on which our sense of what is “really” real selects a slice due to the construction of our nervous systems.

The reason tradition says to train this way is that from this view it is possible to recognize the inescapable dream-like quality of all conscious experience which in turn alleviates suffering by transforming it from something “really real” in an absolute sense and hence life as hell, into something “real, but not quite how it seems” which can open one to experience life as sacred world here and now. These are advanced teachings, hard for the conceptual mind alone to grasp since they are about awareness itself, that more fundamental feature of mind all sentient beings share and on which our conceptual thoughts themselves depend.

The Music of the Spheres is the koan for hearing. Similar contemplations can arise for the other sense as well. Both techniques – sharing the deep time role of geese overhead and looking deeply into what hearing is – are ways of shifting the center of gravity of one’s awareness outside the ego. They are part of what I understand the Buddhist teachings on no-self to be about. Ego is this apperception we have that we are really real the way we seem to be to ourselves; unchanging, singular and independent or separate from everything else. There is self and other, the perceiver and the perceived and far as ego is concerned never the twain shall meet. The yogic view differs, insisting that we are not separate and so are ever-changing and multiple. It holds that however painful it might be for ego to see through its delusions it is worth the effort. Yoga means to yoke, union. It unites self and other by recognizing no-self; that what we actually are is mystery yet we can be assured it is a wholly natural fruition of all that is, a bud on the flowering process of life, a wholly owned expression of causes and conditions written in deep time and across deep space.

Softening the boundary between self and other, one’s allegiance can become increasingly aligned with the side of all living things instead of narrowly focused on your life or your species alone. You will find yourself rejoicing in another’s good fortune and saddened by another’s misfortunes. Equally, taking good care of yourself respects the sliver of the divine other in the budding of life you happen to know most intimately. I suggested in a previous post that when we hear mindful we think heartful. In the same way I suggest that when we hear other we think other-self or larger-self or rest-of-self. In ecology we learn we cannot really discard garbage, that it cannot really be thrown away because there is no away away. This is similar – there is no other that is wholly other. Again, ecological concepts weave well with concepts from the contemplative traditions.  Next week we will look at the contemplative traditions most recognized tool, meditation.